First time with Aleksei Fedorchenko – picked this one out in a rush. There’s also an amazingly unhelpful original Russian poster.
Aist introduces himself as a kind of archeological anthropologist for his own heritage. He inherits the culture of the Merya people, a subgroup of the Volga Finns who have disappeared but live on in small rituals and poetry. It is kind of unclear to me how much of this is wilful and how much real but the film makes play with these ghostly half-presences anyway. The town Neya is like a palimpsest. A photographs local workers and they stare perplexed back at us: we are looking for something in them that they perhaps don’t even themselves realise is there.
His friend Miron’s wife Tanya dies and they make a solemn journey to cremate her at the site of her honeymoon. They prepare her body in a startlingly unheralded shot, the vodka-washing and blanket-wrapping carried out in silent reverence – throughout the film their attentions often seem less loving than respectful. Very Gellian.
Her body serves as a shibboleth to pass a guard on a bridge. M speaks “smoke” over it, divulging sensitive secrets that one wouldn’t reveal during the lifetime of the deceased – a Merya tradition.
Patience and atmosphere. The film takes on dreamlike qualities as we advance towards the ritual; Sebaldian melancholy seeps in. The burning is tense and there is a rupture when, after scattering T’s ashes, M retreats to the shore silently flinging away his wedding ring. The apparent subsumption of death and loss into M cultural tradition, and the association of water and rivers with both vitality and the afterlife, make this intriguingly consonant with The Pearl Button. But this feels like a more fundamental finality, driving a wedge into the balance.
At the beginning A recalls his poet father advising him that “if your soul hurts, write about what you see”. I don’t know much about AF’s connection to the film’s subjects (this adapted from a popular novel) but his ruminative sequences and ambient focus are strung together by a skein of grievance. Per Gell (perhaps), T’s body takes on symbolic significance as a past buried by alienated modernity (these two can barely talk to each other as they drive around, we in the back seat).
Some quite poetic scripting. “The sadness didn’t press on me it enveloped me like a mother.” On that, was a little perturbed by the female presence in the film, which is almost entirely limited to a) dead T, b) flashback alive T who is silent and apparently as obedient (though treasured) as M claims, c) two prostitutes on whom we focus briefly but who seem decathected from SS‘s direction. Too much of classic Russian cinema is men standing around stroking their chins, and this has a fair bit of that, but there’s a question of cultural norms as well as a melancholy silence that helps articulate the theme of loss.
In any case SS glided its way towards a strange ending and, as with Late Spring, I felt surprised at the elegance and reflective beauty that had unfolded. A quiet tonal elegy to memory and the past.